Energy & Environment

Seven stats that explain the West’s epic drought

A white band of newly exposed rock is shown along the canyon walls at Lake Powell.
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File
FILE – A white band of newly exposed rock is shown along the canyon walls at Lake Powell at Antelope Point Marina near Page, Ariz., on July 30, 2021. It highlights the difference between today’s lake level and the lake’s high-water mark.

The American West is experiencing its driest period in human history, a megadrought that threatens health, agriculture and entire ways of life. DRIED UP is examining the dire effects of the drought on the states most affected — as well as the solutions Americans are embracing.

It’s difficult to capture the scale of the drought facing the western U.S., the worst the region has seen in 1,200 years.

The dry period began around 2000 and shows no signs of slowing down, with tens of millions Americans facing shrinking reservoirs and potential power outages amid extreme heat. The most-affected area stretches from Texas to Oregon.

Here are seven statistics to put help put this drought in perspective.

More than half the West is in “exceptional, “extreme” or “severe” drought conditions.

Data from the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) indicates approximately 6 percent of the western U.S. is in a state of “exceptional” drought, the highest classification, defined as involving extraordinary loss of crops and pastures and full-scale water emergencies.

Another 23 percent is in a state of “extreme” drought, defined as conditions that can lead to major crop losses and widespread shortages or restrictions of water, while roughly 26 percent is in a state of “severe” drought, under which crop losses are likely, water shortages are frequent and local or state authorities typically impose water restrictions.

Around 16 percent is experiencing “moderate” drought, and 13 percent is classified as abnormally dry.

Less than 17 percent of the region is experiencing no abnormal conditions. 

100 percent of California qualifies as “abnormally dry.” 

According to the USDM, all of the most populous American state is at least “abnormally dry,” when irrigation delivery begins early, soil is particularly dry and dryland crop germination sees slower growth.

Not much less — 97.5 percent — is experiencing “severe drought” conditions. A full 12 percent of the state is at the highest classification, “exceptional drought.” 

Southern California residents have been asked to reduce their water use by 20 percent.

“We are dealing with a changed climate in California that demands we reimagine not just how we use water, but how we capture, store and distribute it throughout the state,” Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said in a meeting late last month with local leaders. “We are heading in the right direction but we need local water providers to do more to not only save water, but to help the state manage and increase supply as rain and snowfall become less reliable.”

The drought has a 75 percent chance of lasting through 2030.

A February study published in the journal Nature Climate Change found that not only is the drought the worst since the year 800, it’s set to persist.

The analysis found a 94 percent chance the drought lasts into next year at least, and likely much longer.

Researchers on the study from the University of California, Los Angeles, found that the drought has a 75 percent chance of lasting through 2030, making it three decades long.

Climate change makes up more than 40 percent of the problem.

The same study said that while many of the dry conditions would have existed without human-caused global warming, climate change is to blame for approximately 42 percent of the drought since 2000.

During the same period, the average temperatures in the region were 1.64 degrees Fahrenheit above the average of the previous 50 years.

Climatologists have identified 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, as the maximum increase in global temperature where catastrophic warming can still be averted.  

“Right now… we have a relatively good handle on saying when there’s a heatwave, we know how much worse this was compared to a world where we wouldn’t have had any climate change, and things like that,” Flavio Lehner, a climate scientist and assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at Cornell University, told The Hill. “So we’re starting to be able to make more useful attribution statements that then can be used in policy and say this is clearly to a certain fraction because of climate change.”

Lake Mead is at its lowest point in 85 years.  

Satellite images released by NASA in late July indicate that in the past 20 years, water levels in the nation’s largest reservoir dropped dramatically.

As of July 18, Lake Mead was only 27 percent full, according to statistics from the Bureau of Reclamation.

NASA data indicates the reservoir has not been at full capacity since the period between 1983 and 1999.

Current Bureau of Reclamation data, meanwhile, indicates the waters of the reservoir have not been this low since 1937, two years after the Hoover Dam’s completion.  

The federal government has cut water to southern Nevada by about 7 billion gallons.

Last year, the first water shortage was declared for the Colorado River due to the Lake Mead levels.

As a result, beginning in January, southern Nevada’s water allocation` was cut by about 7 billion gallons, which the government of Las Vegas describes as equivalent to the water needs of 45,000 homes.

Local officials have expressed confidence, however, that the reduced amount will still meet local needs, noting that the region used only 242,000 acre feet of water in 2021, less than the 279,000 acre-foot allocation after the cuts.  

Dallas is close to a record for days without rain. 

The Dallas-Fort Worth area has seen its second-longest stretch without measurable precipitation — 67 consecutive days — since June of this year, as of Tuesday.

The only year with a longer dry spell is 2000, when the area saw 84 days without precipitation from July to September, according to the National Weather Service.

Tags California dried up drought droughts Gavin Newsom Nevada water management water resources water shortage water shortages water supply Western U.S.

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